My Hero

It’s been over a month since the 1145th anniversary of his coronation, but Alfred the Great is on my mind. It’s probably because my semester has just ended, and I’ve been reflecting on the past school year. I welcome any wisdom that can help me reflect, and where better to look for wisdom than in the rule of King Alfred?

Alfred the Great, born in 849 and crowned King of Wessex in 871, is known for many things, including uniting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms,  defending them against the Vikings, improving the navy, and issuing a legal code, as well as promoting education and the use of English. Although the Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred), written by the Welsh monk Asser, is surely not unbiased–Alfred had invited him, and other men of the Church, to help him in advancing his own education, and they benefited from their positions–surely it possesses grains of truth or, at the very least, reflects Alfred’s values.

According to Asser, Alfred possessed a “sapientiae desiderium” (“desire for wisdom”*), particularly in the “liberalem . . . artem” (“liberal artes”**). His mother, Osburh, encouraged his love of learning when she showed a book to Alfred and his brothers and promised it to whichever son could memorize it first. Alfred, the youngest, won. Years later, he passed down this tradition of learning by providing teachers for his own children and “omnibus pene totius regionis nobilibus infantibus et etiam multis ignobilibus” (“all the noble children in the entire region, and also many common ones”). Making education available to “common” children anticipates much later movements toward universal education.

The young Anglo-Saxon students “utriusque linguae libri, Latinae scilicet et Saxonicae” (“read books in both languages, namely Latin and Saxon [English]”). Alfred was painfully aware of how important both Latin and English were. Although he had read English from a young age, Latin came only later and with the help of “magistros” (“experts”) from “ultra mare” (“beyond the sea”)–whom he rewarded with “magna potestate” (“great power”)–as well as, ultimately, “divino instinctu” (“divine inspiration”).

He knew that he was not alone in his ignorance of Latin. In the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Rule, known more commonly as Pastoral Care), he famously wrote, “S clæne heo wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron       behionan Humbre ðe ðiora ðeninga cuðen understondan on Englisc, oððe furðum an ærendgewrit of Lædene on Englisc areccean; ond ic wene ðætte noht monige begiondan Humbre næren” (“So thoroughly had it [learning] declined in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English, or even translate a written letter from Latin to English; and I think that there were not many beyond the Humber”***). After this demonstration of England’s state of educational disrepair, Alfred points out the dangers of an educational and religious system that relies on a little-known language to transmit knowledge and enjoins the reader to  

“[g]eðenc hwelc witu us ða becomon for ðisse worulde, ða ða we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon” (“remember that punishment then befell us in this world, when we neither loved it [learning] ourselves nor passed it down to other men”). The “punishment” to which Alfred refers is undoubtedly the Viking attacks in which “hit eall forhergod wære ond forbærned” (“it all was ravaged and burned”) and before which “ða ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma ond boca gefylda” (“the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books”). Alfred points out that people had received “lytle fiorme (“little benefit”) from those books, though, because the books “næron on hiora agen geðiode awritene” (“were not written in their own language”). The suggestion is, of course, that the inability to read and the ignorance it fostered were responsible for decades of suffering at the Vikings’ hands.

Although today most would not blame the Viking invasions on God’s anger at the state of education in Anglo-Saxon England, we can still admire Alfred’s prescience and intellect. His life and career reveal that learning was no less important than–and inexorably connected to–other aspects of kingship and citizenship, including military savvy and prowess. This lesson, certainly, is as valuable today as it was in the ninth century.


* The Latin is from The Latin Library’s “Asserius: Life of Alfred.” The translations are mine. My Latin was never good, and now it’s beyond rusty. If you see any errors, please point them out gently.

** These are not the liberal arts as we know them today. An explanation will be the subject of a future post.

***The Old English is from the University of Calgary’s King Alfred’s Preface to His Translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.” The translations are mine. My Old English is better than my Latin, but if you do see any errors, please (again) point them out gently.


To Cleave together . . . or to Cleave Apart

In my last post, I mentioned contranyms, words that have two opposite meanings. One word that’s often mentioned in lists and discussions of these words is “cleave.” “Cleave,” however–as some have pointed out–is not technically a contranym because “cleave” meaning “to split” and “cleave” meaning “to adhere” are actually two different words, having derived from two separate words: the former from the Old English clíofan or cléofan via the Middle English cleoven and the latter from the Old English clífan or clifian or cleofian via the Middle English clive or clēve or cleeve. 

A word with similar meanings is “clip.” “Clip” can mean, of course, “cut” or “attach,” particularly with . . . clips. The former seems to have come from the Old Norse klippa via the Middle English clippen; interestingly, the earliest example cited it the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Ormulum, written about 1200: to clippenn swa þe cnapess shapp (to snip like a boy’s foreskin). The latter, on the other hand, seems to derive from the Old English clyppan, “embrace.” Genesis A (c. 1000) uses it to mean “clutch” in the story of Noah when dizziness þæs halgan . . .  heortan clypte (clutches the holy man’s heart). The earliest use of “clip” in its more modern sense didn’t appear until Elizabeth Banks’ 1902 Autobiography of a Newspaper Girl: “Page after page passed from under her pen. Then, clipping a dozen sheets together, she read them over.”

A true contranym appears in the form of “trim.” In the sense of both “cut” and “decorate,” the word derives from the Old English trymman or  trymian, which meant, according to the OED, “To make firm or strong; to strengthen, confirm to give as security; to arm or array (a force); to settle, arrange; to encourage, comfort, exhort.” Our modern definitions hark back to only to 1530 (for “cut”) and 1547 (for “decorate”).

There you have it: three words, six meanings, but only one true contranym.

(Thank you to the Oxford English Dictionary, without which this post would have been impossible.)

Published in: on December 25, 2015 at 4:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ye Olde Blogge Poste

Yes, the title of this post is ridiculous. I recently visited Savannah, where I saw a store called Ye Olde Tobacco Shop. We’ve all seen “Ye Olde” attached to names in order (I assume) to make the name seem quaint or old-fashioned. It’s not the motivation but rather the origin of this construction, however, that interests me. To figure out where “Ye Olde” comes from, we need to look way back to the Anglo-Saxons. Their language, Old English, did not have a definite (nor an indefinite) article. The word that became “the” was the Old English version of “that.” Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Old English was an inflected language, meaning that the form of a word, as opposed to its position in the sentence, indicated its part of speech. A noun or pronoun had one of three grammatical genders–masculine, neuter, or feminine–and appeared in one of five cases: nominative (subject), genitive (possessive), dative (indirect object), accusative (direct object) or instrumental (the means by or with which something is done). In addition, nouns and pronouns could be singular or plural. To determine which for of “that stone” to use, a would-be translator could look at the following chart: Singular Nominative  sē stān      Plural Nominative        þā stānas …………  Accusative   þone stān            Accusative         þā stānas …………  Genitive        þæs stānes         Genitive             þāra stāna …………  Dative            þǣm stāne         Dative                þǣm stānum …………  Instrumental    þӯ stāne         Instrumental     þǣm stānum Stān is only one type of noun, but I won’t even try to go there. In fact, let’s put aside nouns and focus on the demonstrative “that.”  Stān is a masculine noun, but remember that nouns and pronouns (including demonstratives) may be neuter, feminine, or plural, as well. The following chart shows all the forms of “that.” (Variations existed, but thankfully for all involved, they are beyond the scope of this post.) ………………….Masc.           Neut.            Fem.         Plural (“those”) Nominative     sē                þæt                sēo             þā Accusative      þone            þæt                þā              þā Genitive          þæs             þæs                þǣre         þāra Dative             þǣm            þǣm               þǣre          þǣm Instrumental   þӯ               þӯ                                       þǣm You’ll notice that almost every form of “that” begins with a þ (“thorn”–pronounced [th]). In time, as English became less inflected, the masculine singular  became the word for “that,” but it also adopted the initial /Ɵ/ (th) sound of the other earlier forms. At some point, it started being used as a definite article, as well. How does any of this relate to “Ye Olde” anything? Eventually, as scribes wrote or copied manuscripts, they used a symbol for þ that looked a lot like their letter “y.” Thus, when later readers saw ye, they read it as “ye” instead of þe. “Ye Olde” means simply (and should be pronounced as) “The Old.” This last bit raises the question of where “olde” came from, but the answer will have to wait. ************************************************* I found the following sources helpful in refreshing my memories of things I learned long ago: Barnhart, Robert K. (Ed.) Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 1988. Print. Brinton, Laurel J. and Leslie K. Arnovick. The English Language: A Linguistic History. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print. Cassidy, Frederic G. and Richard N. Ringler. Bright’s Old English Grammar & Reader. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971. Print. “A Short History of the Word ‘The.’” Xefer. n.p. n.d. Web. 8 April 2015.

Published in: on April 10, 2015 at 8:57 pm  Comments (2)  
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Apostrophes Part 1

My curiosity about apostrophes began when I noticed the sheer number of apostrophe errors in my students’ writing. Speaking with other teachers inspired questions about the punctuation mark’s origins, particularly in English. A little research intrigued me but raised more questions than it answered.

Apostrophes in contractions came from French, which had employed them in the sixteenth century. The use of apostrophes to indicate possession, however, ultimately derived from noun forms in Old English, which is inflected. In Old English, both plural masculine nominative (subject) and accusative (direct object) a-stem nouns and their singular masculine a-stem genitive (possessive) counterparts end in an “s”– –as and –es, respectively.[1] Singular a-stem genitive nouns also end in –es. For example, ModE “stone” was OE stānes (stones) in the plural nominative and accusative but stānas (stone’s) in the singular genitive. Likewise, ModE “ship” was scipes (ship’s) in the singular genitive.

How stānas and scipes became “stone’s” and “ship’s,” however, remains a mystery. Some believe that the second a in stānas and the e in scipes were replaced by apostrophes, but others point out that between scipes and “ship’s” existed “ships” as a singular genitive, meaning that by the time the apostrophe was introduced, there was no “e” for it to have replaced. In addition, this explanation would mean that the “s” changed from an affix, a part of a word, to a clitic, which may be attached to a word but functions as a separate word; such a shift is unlikely.[2]

Some people point to a construction called the “his-genitive,” which would appear as “The king his crown.”[3] This construction appears in such venerated works as Layamon’s Brut, Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55.” A contraction of “king his” would necessitate an apostrophe: thus “The king’s crown.”

The step from “king his” to “king’s” is simple enough, but what if we replaced the king with a queen? We’d have to explain how “queen her” became “queen’s.” Some suggest the his-genitive was more common than the her-genitive or, for that matter, the its-genitive, but I don’t quite understand how “her” and “its” became “’s.”

[1] Many thanks to my well-worn copy of Bright’s Old English Grammar & Reader, as my Old English is a bit rusty.

[2] Naoko Kishida, “Some Notes on the Genitive s-Marker in English.” N.d. Web. 25 September 2014.

[3] John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language Vol. 1. 2 February 2009. Web. 25 September 2014.

Published in: on September 25, 2014 at 11:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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ældo undereotone

Being “iced out” of work for four days has led me to think of “The Ruin,” an Old English poem written in the eighth century. It appears in the Exeter Book which also contains, among other works, “The Wanderer” (a personal favorite) and “The Seafarer.” Much of the poem has been lost due to a fire, but it remains poignant. It describes the ruins of a city–possibly Bath–and ponders the transient nature of the works of our hands and, by association, ourselves. This week’s ice reminded me of this passage:


Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

hrimgeat berofen hrim on lime

scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,

ældo undereotone.


Roofs are collapsed, towers in ruins,

The frosty gate destroyed, ice on mortar

Chipped off, torn, crumbled,

Undercut by old age.         (Translation mine.)


Not a cheerful image, but not one without value.

Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 5:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“My Kids Got Snouts!”

I wasn’t in the mood to do much yesterday, so I allowed myself to get sucked into my 16-year-old daughter’s trash TV world, which at one point included the Maury show. I’m not proud of the fact that I let her spend half her day watching court shows and trash TV, or the fact that I joined her. Let’s just chalk it up to “research for the blog” and call it a day.

As is often the case, Maury was using DNA testing to determine the fathers of various infants and toddlers. (Yes, I realize the phrase “As is often the case” suggests that this is not the first time I’ve watched Maury. Like I said, I’m not proud.) One man declared he could not be the father of his alleged children because their noses are not like his. (One thing I’ve learned in my “research” is that Maury’s guests often focus on one body part or another to support or dispute paternity.) The children’s mother shouted something to the effect of, “You think you got a button nose? You got a snout! My kids got snouts!”

I laughed the hardest I’ve laughed in a long time. It was sad that the mom described her children using a phrase usually reserved for animals, but the word “snout” seemed inherently funny. Geek that I am, I was determined to learn everything I could about the word “snout.”

My public library has the Oxford English Dictionary, so I began the respectable phase of my research there. I learned that the word “snout” derives from the Middle English snut(e and that we have no example of an Old English snut, although we do have the Old English snytan which, according to my Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, means “to blow the nose.”

Of course, these tidbits intrigued me to no end, but what was even more exciting was the history of the word’s use. According to the OED, the earliest extant use of the word to refer to an animal’s nose is in the fourteenth-century King Alisaunder, which states, “On his snoute and horne he [the rhinoceros] beres.” The use of the word to refer to a man’s nose, however, dates to King Horn, which dates to about 1300–slightly earlier than King Alisaunder–which states, “He lokede him abute with his comlie snute.”  (I can’t figure out how to type the “thorn” in “with.” )

Apparently Maury’s guest was using the older meaning of “snout.” My next step, of course, is to see wether her grammar has medieval antecedents as well.


Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 2:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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